A handful of Austin music venues that had started to feature live music in recent weeks as Texas moved to reopen businesses during the coronavirus pandemic faced an abrupt shift Friday. An executive order from Gov. Greg Abbott shut down bars — again.
Since Abbott’s phased reopening of the state began in May, the state’s COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have increased dramatically. Texas broke its new case record for the third consecutive day Thursday, with state health officials reporting nearly 6,000 new cases. Texas also saw 4,738 patients in Texas hospitals, a record for the 14th day in a row.
"At this time, it is clear that the rise in cases is largely driven by certain types of activities, including Texans congregating in bars," Abbott said in a statement Friday. "The actions in this executive order are essential to our mission to swiftly contain this virus and protect public health."
Most of Austin’s hallmark music venues, including Antone’s, the Continental Club, the Mohawk and the Saxon Pub, have remained closed since mid-March. A few, however, tested the waters of reopening in June after some state regulations for bars were relaxed.
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Many were venues with large outdoor courtyards, generally considered less risky for COVID-19 transmission than indoor spaces. Those included Red River Cultural District hub Stubb’s as well as Sam’s Town Point and the new Sagebrush in South Austin. A few primarily indoor venues also reopened, including iconic country dance hall the Broken Spoke and eclectic East Austin club the Sahara Lounge.
"At this point, nothing really surprises me," Sam’s Town Point owner Ramsay Midwood said Friday. "One of the things you have to do as a small business is be able to adapt to the circumstances. We’ve just adapted and tried to be as positive for the communal health, culturally, as we can."
Sam’s Town Point had featured music on its large backyard stage, along with a few smaller shows inside. "There was a nice little gentle breeze of people who felt that perhaps their mental and physical health was positively affected" by live music, Midwood said. "It was revelatory, for me, about the actual impact this shutdown has had."
Sagebrush, a new venue on South Congress Avenue that was in the rare position of actually opening for business during the pandemic, featured a similar mix, with limited-capacity weekend shows in a sizable outdoor space plus a few midweek shows inside, where masks were required.
"We had almost three weeks being open," co-owner Marshall McHone said. "We had lots of space outside, and people were being really responsible. If they came inside and didn’t have a mask, we had bandannas right there, and our staff was polite but insistent" on customers using them.
Sagebrush had opened partly because they were ineligible for Paycheck Protection Program business loans since they had not been in existence before the pandemic. They’d been paying rent and preparing to open for several months before the pandemic hit.
McHone said he and his partners haven’t yet had time to look into whether Sagebrush might be eligible for assistance now that they are an existing business. "People have a lot to do to figure out how to respond at the state level," he said. "And at the federal level, who knows?"
For now, they’re focused on limiting expenses. McHone and co-owner Denis O’Donnell were at the venue on Friday afternoon, turning off air conditioners and canceling weekend orders for beer and liquor. "We’re just trying to hold the costs down while we hang on," McHone said.
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McHone, O’Donnell and others also are partners in East Austin honky tonk hot spot the White Horse, which they’d planned to reopen in the next few days. McHone says he’s holding out hope for a return at some point, if the area’s coronavirus conditions improve.
"This gave us a glimpse of what people expected from us, and what they thought about what we were doing," he said. "It was kind of magical for a minute. Everybody needs to take care of themselves and the people they love and care about, and we’ll try again."
Stubb’s, which also operates as a barbecue restaurant in addition to hosting shows in its sizable outdoor amphitheater, can remain open because "51% of our sales consists of food sales," general manager Ryan Garrett confirmed.
Friday’s executive order dropped occupancy levels for restaurants to 50% from 75% but did not shut them down. Stubb’s reopened on May 21 at limited capacity.
"We will continue to employ seated distancing, mandating masks upon arrival and as patrons move about the facility, and additional sanitizing measures," Garrett noted. However, two shows booked for Friday and Saturday at Stubb’s are now listed as canceled on the venue’s website.
Sahara Lounge had been featuring live music on its indoor stage, but it also has a spacious outdoor patio.
"We did our best to create a safe and healthy environment for our performing artists and customers," owner Eileen Bristol said. "Our indoor space is well ventilated, including ‘up and out’ exhaust systems. We put in quite a bit of effort to establish seating on the dance floor and create extra space between tables in the backyard, hand sanitizer stations, etc.
"In the three weeks we were open, we had consistently small crowds and never approached capacity. We required face masks for entry and would give a free mask to any customer who arrived without one. In the past week, I noticed customers arrived more prepared and accepting of the mask requirement, and I think that is a good sign that people are taking it more seriously."
Bristol added that the venue has created a crowdfunding effort to help with expenses not covered by a business loan they received, raising around $5,000 so far.